The wall of separation between church and state is being eroded, in part because many Baptists have deserted the cause and embraced ultra-conservative politics, attendees at a recent national conference were told.
Gathering in Nashville Feb. 27-28, members of the Mainstream Baptist Network discussed strategies to increase the influence of moderate Baptists in public life and increase support for church-state separation.
The group was founded as an alternative to the rigid fundamentalism that has dominated the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) since the 1980s. The SBC long ago turned its back on church-state separation and now routinely sides with Religious Right groups on a broad range of issues.
Moderate Baptists, by contrast, hold to the traditional Baptist view that church-state separation is necessary for both religion and government.
During the conference, attendees watched a video presentation by U.S. Chet Edwards (D-Texas). Although Edwards is a Methodist, he represents the Waco area, home to the Baptist Baylor University, and is a strong supporter of church-state separation.
"I believe religious freedom in America is at great risk," Edwards said. He urged the nearly 200 participants to step up their activity in support of church-state separation.
"People of faith must take a higher profile in the battle for religious liberty," remarked Edwards.
Randall Balmer, a journalism professor at Columbia University who has written extensively about evangelicals, said America needs more Baptists in the mold of pro-separation leaders like Roger Williams and Isaac Backus. Balmer titled his talk, "Where Have All the Baptists Gone?"
Remarked Balmer, "Never in my life would I have thought I'd say this, but America needs more Baptists."
AU Board of Trustees member Bruce Prescott, who serves as executive director of Mainstream Baptists (www.mainstreambaptists.org), delivered an address titled "Whatever Became of Liberty of Conscience?" Prescott discussed the history of Baptist support for freedom of conscience in colonial America and blasted the SBC for abandoning basic Baptist principles.
"The early Baptists were consistent about wanting to see liberty of conscience extended to everybody to people of all faiths and to people of no faith," Prescott said. "They took liberty of conscience seriously and the Golden Rule literally. They willing did what Jesus commanded when he said, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' For them, the Golden Rule was a principle of respect for the liberty of conscience of other persons. It also provided the common ground on which people of divergent beliefs and convictions could live together in peace and unity if they desire to do so. Unfortunately, not everyone desires to do so. Fundamentalism in the SBC, like fundamentalism in every religion, restricts the Golden Rule and compresses the circle of people that are treated with respect. That always leads to violence."